The congregation sends its own signals: This week, a pastor and I had lunch at a diner in downtown New Orleans, which I’ve visited only once and he not at all. We were amused at some of the signs posted around the eatery. One said rather prominently, “Guests are not to stay beyond one hour.” My friend Jim laughed, “I guess they’re saying we shouldn’t dawdle.” Churches have their own signs, although not as clear or blatant as that. Usually, they are read in the faces, smiles (or lack of one) and tone of voice of members.
“You shall love (the stranger) as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
As a retired pastor who preaches in a different church almost every Sunday, a fun thing I get to do is study the church bulletins (or handouts or worship guides) which everyone receives on entering the building. You can learn a great deal about a church’s priorities and personality in five minutes of perusing that sheet.
As an outsider—that is, not a member or regular here—I get to see how first-timers read that material and feel something of the same thing they feel. I become the ultimate mystery shopper for churches. That is not to say that I pass along all my (ahem) insights and conclusions to pastors. Truth be told, most leaders do not welcome judgments from visitors on what they are doing and how they can do it better. So, unless asked, I keep it to myself. And put it in my blog. (smiley face goes here)
Now, in all fairness, most churches are eager to receive newcomers and want them to feel at home and even consider joining. And the worship bulletins reflect that with announcements of after-benediction receptions to meet the pastors, the occasional luncheon for newcomers to learn about the church and get their questions answered, and free materials in the foyer.
Now, surely all the other churches want first-timers to like them and consider joining. No church willingly turns its nose up at newcomers, at least none that I know of. But that is the effect of our misbehavior.
Here are 10 ways churches signal newcomers they are not wanted.
- The front door is locked.
One church where I was to preach has a lovely front facade which borders on the sidewalk. The front doors are impressive and stately. So, after parking to the side of the building, I did what I always do: walked to the front and entered as a visitor would.
Except I didn’t go in.
The doors were locked. All of them.
After walking back around the side and entering from the parking lot, I approached an usher and asked about the locked door. “No one comes in from that entrance,” he said. “The parking lot is to the side.”
I said, “What about walk-ups? People from the neighborhood who come across the street.”
He said, “No one does that.”
He’s right. They stay away because the church has told them they’re not welcome.
One church I visited had plate glass doors where the interior of the lobby was clearly visible from the front steps. A table had been shoved against the doors to prevent anyone from entering that way. I did not ask why; I knew. The parking lot was in the rear. Regulars parked back there and entered through those doors.
That church, in a constant struggle for survival, is its own worst enemy. They might as well erect a sign in front of the church that reads, “First-timers unwelcome.”
- The functioning entrance is opened late.
Even if we understand why a rarely used front door is kept locked, it makes no sense that the primary door should be closed. And yet, I have walked up to an entrance clearly marked and found it locked. The pastor explained, “We unlock it 15 minutes prior to the service.”
If that pastor is a friend and we already have a solid relationship, I will say something gracious, like, “What? Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? A lot of people like to come early. Seniors do. First-timers like to get there early to see the lay of the land. That door ought to be unlocked a minimum of 45 minutes prior to the announced worship time.”
If the pastor and I are meeting for the first time, I’ll still make the point, although a little gentler than that.
- The church bulletin gives inadequate information.
The announcement reads: “The youth will have their next meeting this week at Stacy’s house. See Shawn for directions. Team B is in charge of refreshments.”
Good luck to the young person visiting that day and hoping to break into the clique. He has no idea who Shawn is, how to get to Stacy’s house or what’s going on if he dares to attend.
So, the youth does not return. Next Sunday, he tries that church across town that is drawing in great crowds of teens. For good reason, I imagine. They act like they actually want them to come.
- The pulpit is unfriendly to first-timers.
The pastor says, “I’m going to call on Bob to lead the prayer.” Or, “Now, Susan will tell us about the women’s luncheon today.” “Tom will be at the front door with information on the project.”
By not using the full names of the individuals, the pastor ends up speaking only to the insiders. Outsiders entered without knowing anyone and leave the same way.